Two researchers whose inventions are making—or have the potential to make—a broad impact on society are being recognized with prestigious awards from the Lemelson-MIT Program.
Timothy M. Swager, the John D. MacArthur Professor of Chemistry and head of the chemistry department at MIT, is the winner of this year's $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize. The award recognizes Swager's development of highly sensitive semiconducting fluorescent polymers that can detect traces of chemicals found in explosives.
Swager's invention is widely used by American soldiers in Iraq to detect explosives. Specifically, it is being used in handheld monitors to check people, clothing, and automobiles for trace TNT.
Swager is now working on electrical resistance-based polymers that can detect changes in the levels of nitric oxide, an important indicator of a person's health. These sensors could be used by doctors, for example, as an early diagnostic of a respiratory infection.
"The future of chemistry relies a lot on our inventing things," Swager says. "Hopefully, this work can inspire other people to be entrepreneurial and take their inventions to the marketplace. It is absolutely critical that people seek innovative applications of their science."
The Lemelson-MIT Program also bestowed another honor, this one for the first time: The $100,000 Lemelson-MIT Award for Sustainability went to Lee Lynd, a professor of engineering and adjunct professor of biology at Dartmouth College.
Lynd, who cofounded biofuels start-up company Mascoma Corp., is pioneering a cost-effective, one-step approach to biologically converting cellulosic biomass, such as grass, wood, wheat, and rice straw, into ethanol that can be used for fuel. Known as consolidated bioprocessing, this approach is a potential breakthrough for processing cellulosic biomass at low cost.
Lynd points out that although the work is still in progress, he is optimistic that it can be advanced rapidly and will improve the quality of life for future generations.
The Lemelson-MIT Program, named after prolific inventor Jerome H. Lemelson, aims to recognize outstanding inventors, encourage sustainable solutions to real-world problems, and inspire young people to pursue creative lives and careers through invention.